June 25, 2008

Shoppers Fed Up As Containers Shrink

By Dawn House, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jun. 25--Besides paying more for a tank of gasoline, consumers are being hit with smaller food packages in grocery stores that cost the same amount of money as their larger predecessors.

The mantra used to be supersizing. Now, it's downsizing -- from cereal, margarine and ice cream to smaller packages of gum.

Kellogg Co. started shipping smaller boxes for five of its brands in June -- effectively raising prices for the second time this year.

"It's unfair," said Salt Lake City shopper Hazy Stonehocker, of Salt Lake City. "But there's nothing anyone can do."

Packages have been shrunk by an average of 2.4 ounces for Apple Jacks, Cocoa Krispies, Corn Pops, Froot Loops and Honey Smacks to offset rising costs for ingredients and energy used to manufacture and distribute the products, said Kellogg spokeswoman Susanne Norwitz.

In January, Kellogg increased prices in the single-digit range to offset higher costs. Its rival, General Mills Inc., started selling Cheerios and Wheaties cereals in smaller boxes last year.

Shoppers might not have noticed the change because grocers have typically pulled the larger packages when restocking shelves or have discounted the larger, older products separately.

"Our customers seem to be relatively OK with the downsizing," said Verna Dupaiz, grocery manager for Emigration Market in Salt Lake City. "People realize that the gas and food crunch is hard across the board."

There's more.

Unilever Foodsolutions reduced the size of its 3-pound cartons of Country Crock margarine by 3 ounces. Dreyer's shrunk the size of its ice cream containers from 1.75 quarts to 1.5 quarts, the equivalent of an ample serving. And Wrigley's cut the number of sticks in its packages of Juicy Fruit and other brands from 17 to 15.

Package downsizing has the potential of misleading consumers, Omprakash K. Gupta, professor of management at Prairie View A&M. University in Texas, said in an e-mail. Although manufacturers mark quantities on packages, research shows that consumers do not consult the amounts in calculating value.

That's why it's important for shoppers to look at unit pricing posted on grocery store shelves, said Lynn Dornblaser, senior analyst at the market research firm Mintel. She expects more package downsizing, but also much larger packaging for consumers who can afford cheaper, volume buying.

For their part, some manufacturers seem reluctant to discuss the changes. Officials from California-based Dreyer's, which acquired Salt Lake City's Snelgrove Ice Cream Co. in 1990, did not return telephone calls or e-mails. And the Wrigley's Web site is silent on the change while answering a variety of other questions, including whether dogs can eat gum. (They shouldn't.)

Still, there's an upside to the downsizing.

Many detergents have been reduced by half or a third of their former volume yet wash the same number of loads per package, according to Consumer Reports. Procter & Gamble, the largest detergent maker, and retailing giant Wal-Mart were behind the move to concentrate formulas to reduce packaging and shipping costs.

In addition, Hefty's Space Saver Pack is 40 percent smaller but contains the same number of bags (28). And it's made from 100 percent recycled paperboard for environmentally conscious consumers.

Smaller packages also could be reducing the amount of food consumers throw away, particularly for single or elderly consumers, said Barry Swanson, a member of the Institute of Food Technologists, in a e-mail.

On the flip side of that is a phenomenon known as overpackaging. Designed to attract consumers' attention, particularly for high-volume products such as soda, water, juices and vegetable oil, this entails packing goods in polyethylene terephthalate, even though cheaper materials are available, Clair Hicks, professor of Food Science at the University of Kentucky, said in an e-mail.

In addition, some vegetables and fruits are packaged in trays with overwrap. Fresh-cut salads have high-tech packaging to cut down on unsightly condensed moisture. And many poultry and meat products are overpackaged.

"The trend is still to give the premium look, which usually involves excess packaging," he said. "So in the premium category, overpackaging is the norm."

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